By Chris Carmichael
Founder & Head Coach of CTS
If you have even a tangential interest in nutrition news, you have undoubtedly seen recent headlines proclaiming there are no health risks to eating red meat after all. This, of course, represents a dramatic reversal of decades of nutritional guidance aimed at reducing consumption of red and processed meats, based on the association with the increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke. Coming on the heels of similar high-profile flip-flops about sodium, fat, and carbohydrate, many people have lost faith in nutrition guidelines and the scientists and organizations behind them. Coming from the perspective of a coach who has worked with thousands of athletes to change lifestyle, performance, and nutrition habits, I think there are two things to remember:
- Nutrition science will never provide easy Yes/No answers about what is healthy or unhealthy to eat. So, no, we will never stop arguing about red meat… or dairy, gluten, sugar, salt, or fat.
- Many factors – nutrition, genetics, exercise, stress, environment – affect your risks for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke. The best use of nutrition science is to inform your dietary decisions within the context of your other risks.
Why Can’t We Get a Straight Answer?
The simplest explanation for why scientists can’t deliver black and white answers about red and processed meats is that they can’t conduct randomized double-blind crossover trials involving thousands of people over a few decades. Instead, they have to rely on observational studies that collect a wide range of data over a long period of time and then look for correlations, for instance, whether people who ate red meat more than X times per week suffered more heart attacks.
To create guidelines and recommendations for the public, organization consider information from many sources, including observational studies, systematic review studies, and controlled studies.
The elephant in the room is that huge industries have vested interests in nutritional guidelines because of their impact on the foods we choose to purchase. The sugar industry doesn’t want sugar associated with obesity and diabetes because, despite clear evidence excess calories from added sugar are bad for human health, people eating less sugar is bad for business. The multi-billion dollar beef industry would love dietary guidelines to swing back in favor of more red meat consumption. At times (potentially even this time), powerful interests from the sugar, beef, corn, soybean, and dairy industries have put their thumbs on the scientific scales, which has further eroded public trust in published research.
What about this latest study?
The big headlines over the past few weeks are related to five related review studies that looked at 61 articles, and the summary of recommendations essentially recommends people continue consuming the amount of red and processed meat they do now. They didn’t necessarily find that meat is more healthful for people than previously thought, but rather, that the risks associated with meat consumption are weaker than previously thought.
The news made for great headlines, not only because it contradicts decades of previous research, but because it’s exactly what a lot of people want to hear. People like red meat. According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, American’s consumed more than 26 BILLION pounds of beef in 2018. The USDA reported “meat disappearance”, which is a proxy for consumption, at roughly 222 pounds per capita in the United States in 2018. For people who want to eat meat, but have been consistently told to limit consumption for health reasons, a study that gives them permission to eat all the meat they want is cause for celebration, vindication of existing eating habits, and a big middle finger to everyone who told them to cut back.
But, has anything really changed?
No, not really. When I read the studies and the responses from scientists and medical professionals (and there have been a lot of them in the past few weeks), I come away with the conclusion that eating red and processed meat can contribute to risk factors for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke; but the contribution is accentuated or mitigated by other dietary choices, activity level, stress, genetics, and lifestyle behaviors – compounded over a period of decades.
What is clear is that there is no nutritional imperative for humans to consume red and processed meat, and people with a constellation of other risk factors (family history of heart disease, obesity, history of smoking, etc.) would benefit from eating less of it (or none at all).
On a population scale, we can look for warning signs of foods or behaviors or pollutants that are harmful to humans. But on an individual basis, we have to find the best balance of personal risks. Eating a moderate amount of meat may pose a low and acceptable risk for a person who doesn’t already have a lot of other disease risk factors.
Eating more plants is still a better option
Even if everything in this newest volley of research is true and eating meat doesn’t increase your health risks, you should still eat less meat and more plants. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations there are about 1.4 billion head of cattle on the planet, and the land, water, and resources required to raise them is extraordinarily high compared to the amount of food energy produced. Plus, that many cattle burp and fart enough methane to significantly contribute to greenhouse gasses, about 41% of all livestock emissions, according to the FAO.
Fate of the planet aside, as a coach my priority for athletes has been to make sure they are optimally fueled for performance. The most important factors for performance are consuming enough total energy from a broad spectrum of foods in order to supply micronutrients and adequate carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Red meat and other animal products can be included in that, but don’t have to be. From a health perspective, consuming more plants and fewer animals (beef or otherwise) increases fiber intake, reduces caloric density (which is useful for portion control), reduces consumption of highly-processed foods, and delivers a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and other important micronutrients.
So, while we’ll probably never stop arguing about the effect of red and processed meat on human health, it’s a safe bet that eating less of both is a good thing for you and the planet.